The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam review – trouble in Utopia

t’s easy to recall a time when Tahmima Anam’s new novel, a pacy satire set in a secretive tech “incubator”, might have passed for science fiction. Not any longer. From the all-consuming social media platform that hogs centre stage to the deadly pandemic that looms over its ending, The Startup Wife pulses with up-to-the-minute topicality. Real-world parallels can be found for even its most far-fetched notions. Software that channels the voice of a deceased loved one? Microsoft patented something very similar at the start of this year (note to IT bosses: Anam’s version goes catastrophically awry).

Look beyond the bleeding-edge technology and apocalyptic anxieties, しかしながら, and you’ll find a cautionary tale as old as time: a woman invents something, a guy takes the credit. In keeping with the credo of its backdrop (“Change is everything”), Anam is out to disrupt this narrative, embedding her efforts in a quest for love and self-determination, and swiping as she goes at an industry in which innovation has far outpaced regulation, leaving ethics in the dust. The end result may not be entirely persuasive philosophically, but as high-octane entertainment that hits notes poignant as well as savagely witty, it soars.

It all begins when Asha Ray, an MIT coding whiz and the daughter of immigrant pharmacists, runs into her teen crush, Cyrus Jones. The aloof hottie who ignored her throughout high school is now an itinerant “humanist spirit guide”, crafting personalised rituals that allow the non-religious to meaningfully mark life’s milestones. A whirlwind romance ensues, and suddenly it’s as if everything that once seemed impossible is within Asha’s reach. Lovestruck, she has an idea. What if she ditches her PhD and writes an algorithm to channel Cyrus’s brilliance, offering bespoke rituals and allowing followers to connect with like-minded soul-searchers?

The pair get hitched on a whim and their startup is born. They call the platform WAI, pronounced “why” and standing for “We Are Infinite”. Cyrus’s best friend, a damaged Wasp named Jules, signs up for the ride and they move to New York, where they’re given desk space at Utopia, an exclusive tech incubator. All-nighters, multimillion-dollar investments and cult-like adoration follow, together with abrupt – if not unforeseen – reversals of fortune both professional and marital.

Anam is herself the wife of a startup founder and her detailed sendups are all the funnier for feeling so plausible. A boardroom is reachable only via trampoline; nudist networking events feature “cuddle puddles”; and cat baptisms abound.

Asha’s coding, その間, is depicted in much the same way that writing is shown in films – lots of tap-tap-tapping fuelled by hemp “mylkshakes”. That’s fair enough, but other features of the novel are similarly skated over, including supposedly charismatic Cyrus, who’s initially described as “mostly human, a little bit cartoon, a tiny bit ghost”, and doesn’t advance much thereafter, merely becoming more obnoxious.

To an extent, this reinforces the novel’s critique of the tech scene, and yet glimpses of Asha’s family – the sister who “rocks” a hijab, their Bangladeshi mother who’d rather she donned a bikini (“That’s what America is for”) – are so vivid in their homeliness they can leave the reader pining for the immersive complexities of Anam’s Bengal trilogy.

By the novel’s end, a different mood prevails. Asha can’t decide whether she’s been betrayed or merely sidelined at WAI; all she knows is that she isn’t about to let Cyrus take the credit. “I gave him power over me,” she fumes. “I gave him all the privilege in the world so that he could turn around and mess me up.”

It’s an interesting response. While it doesn’t altogether fit with how the story unfolds, and it certainly isn’t going to help tech address its chronic and very real women problem (not necessarily fiction’s job anyway), it does disrupt the familiar feeling of disempowerment that comes with victimhood. It also feels true that to Asha, amid the glossy allure of Utopia, any level of unvarnished authenticity seems downright subversive.

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